As we go to press, the French government looks set to legalise a form of gay marriage. PACS (Pacte Civil de Solidarité) was first proposed by the French Socialist-Communist-Green coalition government last autumn. If it passes into law, two unmarried individuals - irrespective of their sex - will be able to enter into a legally recognised union and benefit from many of the rights currently reserved for married couples. Even before it was presented to the National Assembly, PACS became a highly controversial issue in gay, religious and media circles.
At work, in housing and taxation, gay and unmarried couples in France do not have the same rights and benefits as married ones. The aim of PACS is to put an end to certain forms of discrimination by enabling, for example, two gay men to make joint tax declarations, reducing the amount of income tax they pay. Tenants' rights would be strengthened, so that the partner of a person who died or left a flat could not be evicted. PACS would also make it easier for foreigners living with a French partner to obtain a resident's permit.
But even before the law was examined by the National Assembly, the government began to get cold feet. It was originally planned that couples should sign their PACS in their local town hall (where most French weddings take place), but following an outcry among religious and pro-family groups, it was decided that PACS should be signed before a local magistrate. However, the spread of more tolerant attitudes towards lesbians and gays, and a desire to promote stable relationships among homosexuals and heterosexuals alike, have encouraged the French government to go ahead with PACS.
PACS has had a difficult time on its way through parliament. The day it was first presented to the National Assembly, fewer than 40 percent of the deputies from the Socialist-led ruling coalition turned up for the vote, while the right-wing and centrist opposition benches were crowded. The government suffered an embarrassing defeat. The conservative opposition was naturally jubilant, but could not hide its own embarrassment about being made to seem old-fashioned (ringardisés) on the PACS issue. When the PACS project later went in front of the right- and centre-dominated Senate for approval, it was refused, as expected. But worried by widespread accusations of homophobia, the senators then put forward their own alternative proposal for common law marriage, which could also be applied to gay couples.
PACS was due to pass in front of the National Assembly for the last time in October, and seemed certain to become law. Nevertheless, the project has proved to be a source of embarrassment for all political parties. The left has been reluctant to stand up for PACS in case people think it is destroying the family, and the right are reluctant to oppose it for fear of seeming like homophobic has-beens. The unwillingness to take a stand on the issue is characteristic of much of what passes for political debate in France.
For some gay activists, defending PACS has come to seem synonymous with defending gay rights. But it is an interesting sign of the times that the closest politicians can come to promoting the traditional, stable family is by supporting what was once seen as anathema to the family - gay marriage.
Reproduced from LM issue 125, November 1999